Posted June 8, 2012 by in Culture

The Joshi Festival

Laughing in the face of Travel Warnings and a threat from the Taliban, I head north into Pakistan’s Northwest Frontier Province of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, to visit the indigenous Black Kalash Tribe and to see their annual Joshi Festival…

The road to Kalash took four days of travel, ascending from the plains of the Panjab into the Karakoram Mountains, then cutting west over the Shandur Pass into the Hindu Kush range.

That’s FOUR DAYS IN A CAR. Twenty-three hours of which were spent on this ‘Natco VIP Express’—the VIP status being optimistic at best. The windows were cracked and opaque with smudge marks, the hard seats barely reclined, and the air reeked of wilted jasmine and diapers (probably due to the screaming baby who’s mother refuse to change it for nearly seven hours, and instead fumigated the poor  child with a large bottle of perfume).

But who’s complaining? This is Pakistan!

To add insult to injury, the bus speakers blared tinny Urdu pop songs at piercing volume for the entire duration of the ride. With each grating verse, a new chorus would kick in with some conspicuous English phrase repeated over and over for whatever reason—curious phrases like, “Happy Endings! Happy Endings!” or “Sex! Sex! Sex!”

One of the joys of road travel here is watching colorful Pakistani trucks blur past. While the grizzled, tatooed truckers of the American Midwest usually sum up their decorating with a rosary bead on the visor and perhaps a clipping of John Cena on the dash, Pakastani truckers festoon their eight-wheelers with tinsel, pinwheels, psychedelic paint patterns, and sweeping murals Bollywood stars amidst rainbows and palm trees.

The whole experience was greatly overshadowed  by the security presence, the Taliban threat, and the immediate proximity to Afghanistan (from Bumboret, it’s less than a days walk to Afghani Nooristan). To hear more about the culmination of the Taliban’s plot against the festival, and to see me get shitfaced with armed guards,  check out ‘Walnuts and Machine Guns: A Taliban Tale.”

Tucked away in an isolated chain of valleys in the Hindu Kush, the Black Kalash Tribe are the mythical descendants of Alexander the Great’s invading army, and claim to trace their ancestry back to the sick and wounded soldiers who were left behind for dead…

To support this ancestral claim, one only needs to look to the slue of commonalities between the Kalash civilization and that of the ancient Greeks,including their similar music, dance, wine-making, Pagan spirit-worshipping, fair skin, green eyes, disconcerting obsession with goats, and aversion to shaving their backs (especially the women).

It wasn’t until 2004 that scientists began DNA research on the Kalash, and discovered that the tribe had no genetic link to the Greeks whatsoever.

Far more interesting, the Kalash had no genetic link to any known ethnic group. The only explanation to this puzzle is that the Kalash never immigrated here, but have persevered in these valleys since the early stages of human civilization, evolving into their own ethnic race, entirely distinct from Europeans, South Asians, or Middle Easterners…

Their smoky, timber villages have changed little over the millennia. The wood and stone huts that cling to the steep mountainsides are all windowless, consisting of a single room where the family cooks, eats, sleeps, and prays. An unusual attribute of Kalash houses is the massive, octagonal hole in the ceiling, where the smoke from the cooking fire escapes. Another interesting attribute is the verandah, which, for space efficiency, is built atop the roof the adjacent hut that’s downhill, created a flow of each house leading into (or onto) the next.

During out stay, the closest we got to modern technology was a dingy light bulb that would (for a few scheduled hours per day)  flicker to life for a while, before the power cut back out. While this was infuriating at time, the lack of stereos was nice, and we enjoyed a few days’ reprieve from Pakistan’s unfortunate obsession with Justin Bieber.

Tragically, the other half of the Kalash Tribe—the Red Kalash, across the border in Afghani Nooristan—lost their traditional way of life under the Taliban, when they were forced to convert to Islam under pain of death…

Our visit to the Kalash was timed with the annual Joshi Festival, when the villagers use the coming of spring as an excuse to get publicly wasted, dance, eat a ton of walnuts, and throw milk at houses…

Some milk-tossing action, Brun village.

The festival commences with lots of milk drinking. Ten-days-old milk, to be exact. The Kalash revere milk, and on the first morning of the celebrations, it is fed to all the newborns as a means of purifying them. Houses are purified too. As are flowers. Everything gets doused in milk.

While I was tempted to participate in the dairy-binging, and perhaps purify some cookies, I remembered that the milk was ten-days-old, and that refrigerators don’t exist here yet, and thought better of it.

The spoiled milk (and likely ensuing case of gastroenteritis) is then chased down with baskets upon baskets of dried mulberries and walnuts. When I asked why this custom exists, a gnarled old woman raised her eyebrows and gave me an emphatic shrug. In fact, none of the villagers I asked seemed to have an answer. “Because it’s spring time!” rationalized one of them.

I was going to push harder, but then realized that, if asked, I wouldn’t be able to explain why we eat candy corn on Halloween or jelly beans on Easter. Ah, the mysteries of the universe…

The women then distribute the snacks to each household, and even us foreigners were given a few generous handfuls.

Then the villagers burn a bunch of walnuts. They throw milk on the fire too, for posterity I guess.

Again, I asked why, and again, I got blank stares. “It makes the spirits happy,” offered one man.

I wanted to ask why the spirits hate walnuts, but then after another moment of cultural reflection, I imagined how baffled they would be to learn that we please our gods by hiding painted eggs around the living room and snipping the foreskins off our newborns.

While Kalash men sport the typical Pakistani salwar kameez, the women wear vibrant, traditional dresses adorned with dayglo floral patterns, as well as beaded necklaces, gold or silver jewelry, and elaborate headdresses.

While DNA testing has proven the Kalash to have no ancestral links to Europeans, they still dance like white people. Perhaps they’d had too much wine, but some standout Kalashi dance moves include:

Spinning in a circle.

Shuffling your feet as you walk forward in a line.

Um. Spinning in a big circle.

Here, the women link arms and spin together.

On the second and third days, the dancing festivities attract tribespeople from all the surrounding Kalash villages.

With all the dancing, and women foregoing the veil, the Islamic neighbors of the Kalash have long expressed their disapproval, and a great amount of tension exists.

They like to call the Kalash women ‘loose.’

Today, many Kalash are pressured to convert to Islam, and while a good number of them do, the high birthrate of the villages offsets this number. Those that choose to embrace Kalash culture live quite freely, and woman are able to make innocuous physical contact with men in public without being labelled as the village slam pig.

Still, Muslim Pakastani tourists found all the co-ed carousing quite scandalous.

“Look at that guy!” shouted one Panjabi guy standing next to me, pointing to a man shuffling in a circle with two women, “Just look at him! It’s like he doesn’t even care! It’s like he has no shame!”

The only severe mistreatment the Kalash women receive is that, when they’re having their periods, they’re considered pragata, or ‘unholy,’ and are essentially banished to live in a menstruation hut. While I don’t think that menstruating is necessarily evil, I can only imagine what the hut must be like, and how such a bastion of hormones might only reinforce their thinking.

On the flip-side, women of the Kalash get to call all the shots when it comes to marriage. Without the strictures of the Islamic marriage system, women are allowed to leave their husbands for new men, under one condition… The woman must propose to the new, prospective husband, and if he accepts, he must pay the first husband double the dowry that the first husband spent on the wife.

The festival culminates with all the villagers crowding together and shaking leaves over their heads, supposedly to celebrate the coming of spring. Then the men all throw the leaves at the women, which came with no explanation, and the significance of which escapes me entirely.

With the festival over, I head back to the Chitral Valley, to meet up with some Afghan refugees and perhaps arrange a game of  Buzkashi, or ‘Goat Ball,’ the national sport of Afghanistan. It’s like Polo, except instead of a ball, they use a headless goat carcass. I’ve since been charged with the responsibility of buying a goat, and—I guess I’ll just have to do a whole travelogue for this next week…


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To see more travel photos, click the Photo Travelogues tab at the top of this page.

To see how the Taliban situation unfolded at the festival, check out “Walnuts and Machine Guns: A Taliban Tale

To hear about my ill-fated quest to track down the Giraffe-Neck women of the Padaung Tribe in Burma, check out the travel story, “The Human Zoo.”

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